While Illicit drugs have long been linked to higher mortality rates, the data is wildly variable.
In a paper recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Danish researchers attempted to establish standard mortality ratios for the drugs cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy) and opioids (e.g. heroin)*, while taking into consideration the effects of two intervening variables: drug injection with needles and psychiatric disorders (Is the mortality rate of cocaine users mediated by whether they have, for example, clinical depression?)
(*Individuals’ primary drug of choice)
The population they looked at included 20,581 people treated for drug abuse in Denmark over a 10-year period from 1996-2006. (These data are correlational and, therefore, the possibility of unidentified moderating variables exerting an effect on death rates is high.)
In brief, the results showed the following:
1. Those who injected drugs showed significantly higher mortality rates across the board. (This does conflict with past findings, which found no difference.)
2. Overall, psychiatric illness was not associated with higher mortality rates, with the exception of cocaine/amphetamine users, who, if they presented with psychiatric disorders, did show higher morality rates.
3. Pot smokers showed 5x increase in mortality rates (compared to the general population). Researchers suggest that increased mortality among pot smokers could be related to driving accidents, violent injuries and various other types of accidents. (a personal note: Based on my personal experience, this seems unlikely. Pot smokers tend to drive very conservatively (too slow, if anything!) and are famously not prone to violence.) What seems more likely to explain pot smokers’ higher mortality rate is that they are also using other drugs. Other studies have borne this out.
4. Cocaine and amphetamine users showed 6x death rates of the general population. Previous reports on stimulant abuse related deaths are highly variable. The variability is likely the result of other factors including physical conditions, HIV/AIDS, overdose, cardiovascular problems, injuries accidents, violent deaths and suicides.
5. Opiod users show increased mortality rates. Findings for both stimulants and opioids are in accordance with studies from other countries. Users of Heroin and other opioids showed by far the highest mortality rates of all drugs of abuse.
6. Ecstasy (MDMA) users did not show increased mortality rates. (However, it’s possible that a low number of deaths from MDMA contribute to low statistical power).
Conclusions that can be drawn from this report? Stay away from all drugs if you want to increase your chances of staying alive; but, especially, don’t do intravenous heroin. Psychiatric disorders plus drugs of abuse aren’t associated with increased mortality risks except for in the case of cocaine/amphetamine. Ecstasy is unlikely to kill you on its own, but that’s not to say it won’t do some long-term damage if abused. Although marijuana users showed higher mortality rates, there’s not good reason to believe this is solely the effect of marijuana, but other factors. Finally, the population under study here consisted of people seeking treatment, so it’s unknown if this represents the drug using population as a whole.
I think it’s pretty clear, given the number of questions and unknowns this study presents, that there is a lot more to learn about drug-related mortality risk.
Arendt M, Munk-Jørgensen P, Sher L, & Jensen SO (2011). Mortality among individuals with cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine, MDMA, and opioid use disorders: a nationwide follow-up study of Danish substance users in treatment. Drug and alcohol dependence, 114 (2-3), 134-9 PMID: 20971585